In 2011, I once again spent more hours sitting in the dark looking at other people on a stage than I care to admit. But as always, there are moments that take a nothing evening and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile. So, as is the annual Out West Arts tradition, here’s the list of the 10 best things I saw on a stage this year that involved music. (The 2011 theater list won’t appear until January given that I have a number of new shows I’ll be seeing right up to the end of the month so stay tuned.)
1. Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Adès. 4/11. It’s a crime Barry isn’t a bigger name in music and opera and his setting of Earnest is exhibit A. A riotously funny musical version of Wilde’s play even in this concert version outshone everything else with its smashing plates and a bass singing Aunt Augusta. This opera should be on every opera company’s to do list and was easily the most fun I had at any show all year.
2. Wagnerian diamonds in the rough - James Levine conducting Die Walküre at The Metropolitan Opera on May 14th, 2011 and Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde at San Francisco Opera 6/11. Even in not-so-great Wagner productions this year there were some causes for celebration. Despite Robert Lepage’s underwhelming production of the Ring at The Metropolitan Opera, this single performance of Die Walküre, which was projected as part of the company’s Live in HD series around the world, was just about as thrilling as opera gets. On the closing day of the Met’s season, music director James Levine led a ferocious performance raging against everything awful in the world. The odds were against him from a set that delayed the start of the show by nearly half an hour to his own health problems, which had led to many cancellations earlier, and then later on, in the year. In what increasingly looks like it may have been Levine’s last appearance in the Met pit, the beautifully conducted and sung performance was thrilling for all the high-wire, risk-taking, do-or-die human fragility that makes opera as exciting an art form as it is. Francesca Zambello’s Ring production in San Francisco only faired moderately better with less sensational musical qualities, with one very big exception: Nina Stemme. In California, she proved herself to be the world’s reigning Brünnhilde in her first complete cycles. Watch out Munich.
3. John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at Opera Theater Saint Louis. 6/11. The best overall single opera performance I saw this year was Adams’ still controversial work about terrorism and humanism, which returned to the U.S. after an unusually lengthy hiatus. OTSL put together a production that caught all of the opera’s beauty including a phenomenal choral performance. There are few things more exciting than hearing music this beautiful come to life. It was a stirring and heart wrenching evening.
4. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Shostakovich’s Prologue to Orango and Symphony No. 4. 12/11. The best single orchestral performance I heard this year was a return appearance of Salonen to the orchestra he made famous with music that was funny, painful, tortured and insanely difficult in a way that communicates with the audience and holds together on an aesthetic level. Salonen has few rivals with this kind of program and his mastery that weekend made me ache over what has been lost in L.A. in his absence.
5. David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field at Long Beach Opera. 6/11. This single act from Lang with musical accompaniment from a string quartet was both emotionally stirring and intellectually challenging. A meditation on memory and the weights of history, Crossing a Field got the kind of bold, fascinating treatment one has come to expect from Andreas Mitisek and his Long Beach company who create so much out of such limited resources that it should put most American opera houses to shame.
6. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium performed by the CalArts Music ensemble and wild Up with soloist Mark Menzies at REDCAT. 5/11. Gubaidulina made a rare personal appearance in Southern California this May in conjunction with performances of several of her works including Glorious Percussion with the L.A. Philharmonic. The most impressive of those was her large scale violin concerto that got an unimaginably loving and enthusiastic performance from CalArts students and faculty. Joining them was conductor Christopher Rountree, the leading force behind L.A.’s biggest, boldest collaboration of young musicians, wild Up that had a banner year playing just about everything they or you, could think of. Watch their space for more.
7. David Lang’s the little match girl passion at Jacaranda Music. 1/11 and with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. 11/11. Lang had quite a year in Southern California and his multi-prize winning treatment of The Little Match Girl got a stunning four-voice chamber performance under the auspices of the Westside’s new(er) music leader, Jacaranda Music. Months later, one of the soloists from that performance, Grant Gershon, led his regular ensemble, the Los Angeles Master Chorale in a version for full chorus. The two performances were strikingly different and emotionally devastating in completely different ways, a testament to Lang's writing as well as the talents of the various performers.
8. Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia at Los Angeles Opera. 2/11. LA Opera had a banner spring season including this masterful comedy with a superb cast including Nino Machaidze, Paolo Gavanelli, and Thomas Allen among others in a modern whimsical production from Christof Loy in one of his show’s first outings in the U.S. Once again LAO proved that taste is one of its biggest strengths in bringing a show that takes what is arguably a light entertainment and turns it into undoubtedly something far greater. You’d be just as well off on this item if you chose to substitute it for LA Opera’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw from 3/11, which was equally as good in a Jonathan Kent production with Patricia Racette.
9. San Francisco Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 under Michael Tilson Thomas. 10/11. MTT and his orchestra proved that hard work and perseverance can pay off with a world-class performance of Mahler’s Third. Profound and perfectly proportioned, it was Mahler to be envied and aspired to by those of us in Southern California.
10. Beautiful Baroque singing everywhere you turned, from Philippe Jaroussky (10/11), Andreas Scholl (10/11), Lucy Crowe (5/11), Iestyn Davies (11/11), and Vivica Genaux (10/11). Everywhere I went this year, it was was consistently vocalists who specialize in Baroque music that impressed me most for some reason, often jaw-droppingly so. The U.S. debut of the year either has to go to Lucy Crowe who dominated Handel’s Hercules at Lyric Opera of Chicago, or it could just as easily be Iestyn Davies who gave a fantastic performance in Rodelinda at The Metropolitan Opera. The world’s leading countertenor, Andreas Scholl was in that same Rodelinda but his appearance with The English Concert in works of Purcell in Los Angeles was no less awe-inspiring. And within just days of this appearance, Philippe Jaroussky sang alongside Apollo’s Fire Orchestra with glorious tone at UCLA while Vivica Genaux was heard with the Philharmonia Baroque orchestra giving the best performance of “Agitata Da Due Venti” I’ll ever likely hear.
Honorable Mention: There were a number of other shows that could just have easily made the top ten this year including Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Boris Godunov, the return of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha to The Metropolitan Opera complete with protestors, Berg’s Wozzeck in either Santa Fe or New York, "Monodramas" at New York City Opera, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with Simon Rattle at The Metropolitan Opera, Mitsuko Uchida playing Schumann at Carnegie Hall, Gabriel Kahane’s Orinoco Sketches, which premiered on the L.A. Phil stage in the spring, wild Up playing punk rock and Barlow at Beyond Baroque, Thomas Adès conducting Stravinsky’s Les Noces with the L.A. Phil, Santa Fe Opera’s production of Vivaldi’s Griselda from the mind of Peter Sellars, and the glorious magnetic voice of Jonas Kaufmann be it in recital or as Siegmund.